Unfulfilled Resolutions And Saudi Arabia’s Poor Human Rights Record

Saudi Arabia


Although Saudi Arabia has announced vital reforms concerning basic human rights over the last two years, according to the 2021 US Department of State Report, the Amnesty International 2021/2022 report, and the 2023 Human Rights Watch report, the country has made little progress in advancing human rights. Overall, the announced legal reforms are virtually fruitless in the face of the widespread and systematic repression under de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Between 2011 and 2023, the European Parliament has issued 22 resolutions on Saudi Arabia. The majority of them, however, only contained general references to the country that were marginal compared to the broader scope of the resolutions. Only six resolutions directly addressed the political situation and human rights conditions in Saudi Arabia, and only starting from 2015. Compared to other countries from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the number of parliamentary resolutions specifically focused on Saudi Arabia’s human rights situation is much lower. For example, Bahrain has been the main focus of 15 parliamentary resolutions concerning human rights in the same period. This inconsistency in the EU commitments to human rights in the countries of the Gulf, despite their similarly appalling human rights records, suggests that the EU prioritizes other fields of interest depending on the country it addresses.

In the face of the prevalent repression and human rights violations occurring in Saudi Arabia, this dispatch is will demonstrate the European Union’s (EU) passive approach with regards to the implementation of the resolutions’ requests, especially those calling for the imposition of sanctions and trade embargoes as measures to hold Saudi officials accountable, as well as its consequences for the development of the human rights situation in the country.


Parliamentary Resolutions On Saudi Arabia: A Comparative Analysis

The European Parliament addressed many concerning aspects of Saudi Arabia’s political and human rights situation, especially: the persistence of the death penalty and executions; lack of freedom of expression, assembly and association; the detention of human rights defenders; the significant restrictions imposed on women’s rights and freedoms; the use of torture and ill-treatment; the lack of institutional accountability; and the resulting culture of impunity.

Our comparative analysis, however, shows that many of these requests have been repetitive, if not identical:

Repetition of requests does not necessarily and always amount to failure. For example, in the span of three years (2015-2018), the Parliament has repeatedly condemned the detention (five times) and mistreatment (five times) of Saudi writer Raif Badawi and demanded his case to be raised in EU-Saudi Arabia meetings (three times). The possibility of such continuous calls on the EU institutions contributing to his release in March 2022 cannot be underestimated.

Nevertheless, this does not mean repetitions always amount to positive change either. For example, it is not a case that concerns about the increase in executions and death sentences remained a common theme of three resolutions for almost four years in a row. The poor implementation of parliamentary requests acts as a blank cheque for the Saudi government, and may indirectly contribute to the intensification of human rights violations.

In the same fashion, the presence of many calls for sanctions against Saudi Arabia is to be commended, and seems to compensate for the fact that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has received less direct attention than other GCC countries:

However, a closer look reveals that requests for sanctions also repeat across different years and resolutions without being followed by relevant changes. For example, four requests distributed across two resolutions (2018/2885(RSP); 2020/2003(INI)) concern the possibility of an embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and explicitly remind the Parliament that the VP/HR has been called upon in this regard for a total of 11 times]. The same goes for four calls to use the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime against Saudi authorities involved in serious human rights violations (2018/2712(RSP), 2018/2885(RSP), 2020/2815(RSP), 2021/2787(RSP)), for which there is no official record.

We thus consider the continuous reiteration of requests over a span of 12 years not only as indicative of negligence from the Saudi government, but also as a sign of an inefficient implementation of parliamentary resolutions by the EU.

Evidence of limited initiative becomes apparent when one looks at the repeated calls for action addressing European institutions:

In particular, the EEAS and the EU Delegations in Saudi Arabia have been called upon multiple times, and often with identical wording, to:

While acknowledging and praising the proactive stance the Parliament displayed with respect to Saudi Arabia, this has clearly not been followed by the concrete implementation of its requests. Without this, EU-Saudi Arabia Human Rights Dialogues, although fundamental, will never be sufficient to bring about the desired changes.

Consequences For Human Rights

Despite the announcement of vital reforms concerning basic human rights over the last two years, Saudi Arabia has continued to perpetuate a longstanding record of human rights violations. Over the last decade, human rights activists, lawyers, political parties, religious scholars, bloggers and critics have been arrested and imprisoned under cruel and degrading treatment and prison conditions. Also, political parties continue to be illegal in the country, meaning that there is no organized political opposition and political dissent is subject to criminal prosecution Moreover, as more women take leading roles in resisting the government and defending human rights, they have increasingly become targets of abuse and constitute a growing part of the country’s political prisoners. Male and female political prisoners have been subjected to abuse at every stage of the criminal proceedings, including illegal and arbitrary arrests, physical, sexual and psychological torture to extract confessions, sham trials and inhuman prison conditions. On 12 March 2022, Saudi authorities executed 81 men, despite recent promises to curtail its use of the death penalty.

Authorities systematically make use of the country’s 2017 Anti-Terrorism Law and the Anti-Cybercrime Law. This extremely vaguely-worded anti-terror legal framework allows authorities to restrict freedom of expression, opinion, association, and assembly, based on the premise that individuals disturb public order, destabilize the state or endanger its national unity. Dozens of people remain in detention and are accused of terrorism for their activism, criticism of government leaders or policies, impugning Islam or religious leaders and internet posts. A prominent and worrying case is that of Salma al-Shehab, a mother of two children arrested and detained for using Twitter to follow and write in support of women’s rights activists in the country. Al-Shehab was held in solitary confinement for more than 200 days before being brought to trial and denied legal counseling and representation throughout the entire process and sentenced to 34 years under the country’s counter-terrorism law and the anti-Cyber Crime Law. Essentially, the government has used its absolute power to severely restrict individuals’ online activities and the information they access. Censorship and high-tech surveillance systems remain prevalent in the country and those deemed to have engaged in dissent or illegal behavior in their online activities are arrested, detained, imprisoned and even tortured.

Moreover, although Saudi Arabia has taken some important positive steps regarding women’s rights, women are still highly dependent on and in a subservient position in relation to men. Also, the government continues to fail to properly address women’s systematic discrimination and the male guardianship system, to improve their rights, thus perpetuating gender inequality in the country.

Finally, several problems persist regarding migrant rights, who suffer from abuses by employers against their employees. This includes the existence of the kafala system, the symbolic and not legally binding character of the great majority of the agreements between the Saudi government and migrant source countries, and the culture of impunity among perpetrators. Saudi Arabia has also failed to ratify several international agreements and mechanisms concerning human trafficking or labor abuses like the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families and has not implemented many others, despite its formal acceptance.

This shows the government’s lack of effort in addressing the country’s situation regarding labor and migrants’ rights. Considering the abuses here outlined, Saudi Arabia is in clear violation of international human rights law and even its own legal framework, showing that the efforts by the EU seem to not have materialized into effective change.


To conclude, the lack of significant change in human rights in Saudi Arabia following the passage of human rights resolutions and the Human Rights Dialogues reflects the EU’s apathetic approach to this issue. Inconsistency in the implementation of existing resolutions still allows government officials to perpetuate injustices and promote the culture of impunity in Saudi Arabia. We firmly assert that the EEAS should take advantage of the existing resolutions.

In order for Saudi Arabia to abide by its international human rights obligations, real accountability for crimes of torture and other human rights violations must not only be demanded through resolutions but also effectively pushed for by the European Union. Justice must always take priority over impunity. Though the resolutions issued by the Parliament and the EEAS Action Plan and Human Rights Dialogues represent significant efforts to drive positive change in Saudi Arabia, this approach is not sufficient for the scale of ongoing human rights violations and the dismissive attitude of the Saudi government. To effectively pressure the government to reconsider its intensified assault on political and civil rights, the EU must implement concrete measures to sanction those responsible for and involved in violations, showing that it will not tolerate the continued violation of basic human rights.

Therefore, we call on the European Parliament and the EEAS to implement the following recommendations:

  • Ensure the “asks” of resolutions are effectively implemented in the long term;
  • Attend follow-ups by the European Parliament on the passed resolutions;
  • Impose travel bans and financial sanctions on the Saudi government officials responsible for human rights violations; and
  • Create an independent authority to make sure EU funds are correctly spent on the improvement of human rights in Saudi Arabia.